50.50: Feature

Kenyan sex workers demand recognition of their rights amid violence and murder

As the 2012 murder of Agnes Wanjiru captures global attention, Kenyan sex workers renew calls for decriminalisation of their work

Rael Ombuor.jpg
Rael Ombuor Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu
9 December 2021, 4.08pm
Illustration: Inge Snip

Fresh revelations about the murder in 2012 of Agnes Wanjiru, a 21-year-old sex worker in Kenya, have reignited calls to decriminalise sex work from the country’s sex workers.

Wanjiru was last seen in the company of a white British soldier at a hotel in the town of Nanyuki, where the British army has a permanent base. Her body was discovered two months later in the hotel’s septic tank.

Sex workers who knew Wanjiru spoke with openDemocracy and insisted that her murder was a result of the criminalisation of sex work – as are many forms and examples of violence against sex workers in Kenya.

“Criminalisation [of sex work] is what is giving the perpetrators the freedom to keep on violating sex workers,” said Phelister Abdalla, national coordinator for the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA), an umbrella body for sex worker organisations in Kenya that has been at the forefront of drawing attention to Wanjiru’s case.

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Maryanne, a 36-year-old sex worker in Nanyuki, took part in a protest march in October demanding justice for Wanjiru. She told openDemocracy that the current laws in Kenya leave her and her colleagues vulnerable to violence from men, both Kenyans and foreigners.

“These violent ones see themselves as superior and this is something that we also experience among the Black clientele,” she said. “This job is not an accepted job.”

There is no law that explicitly penalises the sale of sex in Kenya. However, Kenya’s penal code (which dates from the colonial era) prohibits “living off the earnings of sex work” and “soliciting or importuning for immoral purposes”.

A British soldier allegedly confessed at the time to the murder of Agnes Wanjiru

After The Sunday Times reported in October that a British soldier had allegedly confessed at the time to the murder of Wanjiru, the Kenyan police announced that they were reopening the investigation into her murder, with the support of the British government.

This comes almost a decade after Wanjiru’s death was first reported to the Kenyan authorities. For years, local human rights organisations had complained about a lack of progress.

According to Rose Wanyua Wanjiku, Wanjiru’s sister, it was only this year that her family received numerous requests from journalists for interviews about her sister's case. She hopes that her family may finally get the justice they thought was elusive.

“I still do not understand why things were so slow on both sides [Kenya and the UK] because we reported the issue of Agnes,” she said by phone from Nanyuki.

At the end of last month, Kenya’s director of public prosecutions, Noordin Haji, said at a parliamentary defence committee meeting that the police would fly to the UK to interview a list of suspects and witnesses.

The Sunday Times describes army personnel allegedly knowing and joking about the murder on Facebook and on a military forum. However, Kenyan media say that Haji told the committee that these confessions are not enough to convict the suspect in Wanjiru’s murderer.

A violent history of colonialism and militarism

Some have linked the death and decade-long lack of investigation into Wanjiru’s death to Britain's colonial past in Kenya. They also connect the subsequent alleged cover-up by Kenyan officials and top UK army brass to the UK’s indirect control of its former colony.

In July, Kenya and the UK signed a new five-year defence cooperation agreement. Once ratified by both countries’ parliaments, the UK will invest 1.165bn Kenya shillings (£7.8m) annually in the defence partnership with Kenya. Last month, some MPs on the Kenyan defence committee threatened to thwart this deal by not ratifying it until Wanjiru’s murderer is prosecuted.

The British military’s presence in Kenya predates the country’s independence in 1963, with the first British Army Training Unit (BATUK) being set up in 1945. There have been allegations of human rights violations by the British ever since then. In recent decades, soldiers serving in BATUK have been accused of sexual assault and rape, the death of locals due to negligence in disposing of explosive material, and environmental damage.

An Amnesty International report from 2003 said that at least 650 rape allegations had been made against British soldiers over a 35-year period. Amnesty was concerned that “the failure to take effective action to investigate [and] prosecute alleged perpetrators” by both the UK and Kenyan authorities probably created a “climate of impunity” and “widespread repetition” of the alleged violations.

The UK's Ministry of Defence later said that their investigation into the allegations found that they had been fabricated, although some of the women who fielded the rape claims protested these findings.

Nanyuki sex worker Maryanne says that she has had “Johnnies” (the local term for British soldiers) as clients, and has had both good and bad experiences. Most of the sex workers prefer white clients because they pay well.

But those who commit violence against sex workers often get away with it because of money too – by bribing police or paying off sex workers, says Maxmilla Wamalwa, a 39-year-old sex worker from Bungoma, western Kenya.

“When our rights are violated by people who have money, most get away with it,” Wamalwa told openDemocracy.

Sex workers ‘not treated as full citizens’

Abdalla from KESWA said that justice is particularly elusive for sex workers, and that it is worse in countries where their work is criminalised. She insists that the race of Wanjiru’s alleged murderer is not the key factor in this case.

‘This is why we have so many different colours of clients violating the rights of sex workers. This is happening to everyone, not simply because this is a foreigner, or this is Africa,” said Abdalla.

Wamalwa is concerned that Wanjiru’s alleged murderer may get away with his crime because sex workers are not “treated as full citizens in the eyes of the law” and those who enforce it.

“As women, as girls, and then as Kenyan citizens, there is a gap somewhere. Look at how that girl was killed. I assume investigations were not done properly, to enable the Mzungu [white man] [to avoid] custody or [maybe] he is linked to big people,” said Wamalwa.

I want justice – for the Mzungu [white man] to pay for his actions

Despite the increase in phone calls and visits from journalists asking about her sister’s death, Wanjiku told openDemocracy in late November that neither British nor Kenyan government representatives had reached out to her.

“I am exhausted, really exhausted,” she said. “It pains me a lot because she was missing for two months. We should have known what was going on a long time ago. [Even if I did] something bad to you, are you supposed to kill me?”

Agnes Wanjiru’s daughter, five months old at the time of her mother’s death, is now ten. Wanjiku says that she hopes that justice will prevail, at least for her niece.

“I want justice – for the Mzungu to pay for his actions,” she said.

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